Leona O'Neill: Let's try to shine a little light in a world filled with hate

Students wait to be picked up after the high school mass shooting in Florida earlier this month
Students wait to be picked up after the high school mass shooting in Florida earlier this month

THERE’S no getting away from it, the world our children are growing up in is at times a brutal, cold, aggressive and uncaring place.

It is one where children are gunned down in their classrooms, where bombs rain down on them from the sky, where they find themselves on a flimsy dinghy navigating the treacherous waters of foreign oceans to escape the terrors of their homelands.

It is a place where being gunned or mowed down in the street by terrorists is a possibility.

Children are growing up in crammed refugee camps. Children bear witness to their families being persecuted in their own home for being the ‘wrong' colour, religion or nationality. Young people are vilified in the street for their appearance, or bullied mercilessly to the point of suicide online.

In the wake of the horrific Florida shootings where 17 people died we heard teenagers begging for the US gun laws to be changed to protect them. In the news we saw the victims' beautiful faces being flashed across the screen, so full of hope for the future, so full of life and promise.

We heard how that promise was snuffed out in just four minutes. We heard mothers and fathers stand up in town hall meetings and cry and rage for their lost children, gunned down in yet another tragedy that will be etched in the memories of all our young people across the globe.

The world we are living in is one where American teenagers have to watch their friends bleed to death on a cold school corridor floor wondering if they will be next to die. It is a world where an eight-year-old girl tells her mother that she doesn’t want to wear her flashing Sketchers shoes to school in case it gives her away when she is hiding in a cupboard from an active shooter.

Here at home we heard about the horrific abuse a young north Belfast woman suffered in the street because of a facial disfigurement. Janine Howard says she has to wear earphones when she goes out so as to not hear the insults hurled at her. Pictures of the young woman have been posted online with vile comments attached.

Bullying and nastiness is so commonplace – from the streets of the New Lodge where Janine lives to the highest office in the world at the White House – that it is becoming normal and acceptable in today’s society. How many times have you scrolled through Facebook to see one human being tearing strips off another in an online ‘debate’?

Our children’s worlds are much bigger than ours ever were. They exist in the real world and the virtual world, dealing with bullies and trolls from down the street and around the planet. Technology has even facilitated bullying with anonymous feedback apps that young people are using to tear one another down, suggest self-harm and even suicide. Just last week an English mother’s petition resulted in the removal of a bullying app from Apple and Google stores. But when one closes, yet another opens up in its place peddling hate. It seems hate is big business.

People thrive on nastiness. People jump down the throats of those who have a different opinion – something we are certainly no stranger to here in Northern Ireland – and we vilify those who have the audacity to be individuals.

My mother and father brought us up to be empathetic and caring and to have manners and compassion. My father always said that respecting yourself does not mean disrespecting others. I’ve brought that into adult life and try and instil the same qualities in my own children.

In all honesty, as individuals there is little we can do about stopping mass shootings in the States, or preventing global terrorism or indeed ending the refugee crisis. But we can make a change at grassroots level to help create a better world for the future – small actions can have a massive impact.

As Martin Luther King said, darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. We need to make sure the next generation shine bright, be kind, be caring and be strong are willing and capable of building bridges instead of walls.